Photo by ANGELA WEISS / AFP.
African Models: The Most Iconic Names You Should Know
From the old-school legends to the newer names breaking through, these are the must-know faces of African fashion.
Fashion is a universal language that continues to evolve and speak volumes about the world we live in. One trend that has stood the test of time is the emergence of African models on the international fashion scene. These days, names like Adut Akech, Mayowa Nicholas, and Thando Hapo are dominating the fashion industry, driving branding and fashion trends, and joining the ranks of the most iconic fashion models. However, over the decades, there have been scores of beautiful women who have stolen the hearts and imaginations of designers, photographers, and the public at large.
Looking back on more recent history, the late 1980s and 1990s saw the reign of Black supermodels like Grace Jones, Iman Abdulmajid, Alek Wek, Katoucha Niane, and Naomi Campbell. Later, Liya Kebede, Oluchi Onweagba, and Ajuma Nasenyana also made their mark in the industry, defying stereotypes and contributing significantly to the fashion world. Their fierce runway walk and stunning features have become symbols of empowerment, capturing the attention and admiration of the fashion world and beyond.
These iconic models have shattered glass ceilings, established their place in the industry, and inspired women of all ages and backgrounds to embrace their individuality and celebrate their unique beauty.
Here is OkayAfrica’s rundown of the most iconic names you should know, and why.
1. Liya Kebede
Liya Kebede, a renowned Ethiopian model, rose to prominence in the fashion industry following her debut in France in 1997. Her notable achievements include being the first African model to represent Estée Lauder, thereby paving the way for greater inclusivity and representation in the fashion world. Beyond modeling, Kebede is a devoted philanthropist with a particular focus on maternal and child health. In 2005, she established the Liya Kebede Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing maternal and newborn mortality rates both in Ethiopia and globally.
As a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organization, she uses her influential platform to promote better healthcare for mothers and children worldwide. Her unwavering dedication to both the fashion industry and her philanthropic work has earned her numerous accolades, including recognition as one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2007 and the Global Leadership Award from the United Nations Foundation in 2013.
2. Adwoa Aboah
British model Adwoa Aboah is a feminist activist who has made a significant impact on the global fashion industry. With her striking beauty, unique appearance, and bold personality, she has successfully challenged conventional beauty standards while promoting inclusivity. Aboah launched her modeling career at just 18 years old, quickly gaining recognition for her exceptional talent and working alongside esteemed names in the industry.
In addition to her modeling career, Aboah is an advocate for mental health awareness and the empowerment of young women. She founded Gurls Talk, a secure online community that provides a platform for young women to share their experiences related to mental health, sexuality, and body image. Through this initiative, she strives to empower young women to find their voices and capabilities. Her unwavering presence in fashion has shattered long-standing barriers, and her unique appearance, fierce personality, and social activism have made her an inspiration for young women worldwide.
Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, known professionally as, of course, Iman, is a Somali American fashion model, entrepreneur, and actress whose contributions to the fashion industry have cemented her status as one of Africa's most iconic supermodels. In 1975, she caught the attention of the industry when she signed with Wilhelmina Models in New York City, captivating audiences with her striking beauty and unique features. A year later, her first Vogue magazine cover propelled her to fame, establishing her as one of the most sought-after models of the 1970s and 1980s.
Throughout her illustrious career, Iman worked alongside the most esteemed photographers in the industry, including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Helmut Newton, producing iconic photographs that continue to inspire individuals. Iman has utilized her platform as a model and entrepreneur to empower women and elevate African culture. She established IMAN Cosmetics, a brand dedicated to women of color, and supported philanthropic ventures that work to improve the lives of women and children in Somalia. She is a true symbol of African beauty, culture, and empowerment, and her influence will continue to inspire generations to come.
4. Alek Wek
Alek Wek, a British model born in South Sudan, has defied societal norms regarding beauty and ethnicity, earning her place as one of her generation's most influential and pioneering models. Her journey to becoming a fashion icon serves as a powerful example of overcoming adversity and prejudice to achieve success. Growing up amidst civil war and conflict in South Sudan, Wek fled to the U.K. with her family at the age of 14, eventually enrolling in college. When she was 18, a modeling scout discovered her, and she quickly rose to fame, becoming a favorite of esteemed designers such as Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and Chanel.
Wek's distinct features and striking beauty challenged the conventional standards of beauty, making her an icon for women of color worldwide. Now 45, Wek's journey and her impact on the fashion industry and society cannot be overstated. She has inspired a generation of young girls to embrace their unique beauty and celebrate their uniqueness.
5. Maria Borges
Hailing from Angola, Maria Borges has paved the way for international success in the fashion industry, breaking through societal barriers and defying so-called traditional beauty standards. Her journey began at the young age of 16 when she was scouted by a local agency in Luanda, where she quickly rose to fame in the industry. In 2010, Maria took a bold step towards her dreams and relocated to New York City, where she swiftly made her mark in the highly competitive world of high fashion.
What sets Maria apart is her unwavering commitment to staying true to herself and her cultural heritage. She boldly graces the runway with her natural hair, a representation of African beauty that is still uncommon in the industry. With her influential platform, Maria has advocated for greater representation of African women in the media, while championing the values of diversity and inclusivity. Throughout her career, Maria has achieved many remarkable milestones, including being the first African model to grace the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show runway in 2015 with her natural hair on full display.
6. Agbani Darego
She won the Most Beautiful Girl in Nigeria (MBGN) pageant in 2001 and later Agbani Darego became the first African woman to win the Miss World pageant. Her success shattered the glass ceiling for African models and put Nigeria on the map. Darego’s success did not end with her win at the Miss World pageant as she went on to work with top fashion brands and magazines globally, opening doors for other African models and diversifying the fashion industry.
Darego encourages young women across the continent to pursue their dreams and never give up. In addition to her modeling career, she has been involved in philanthropic work, founding the Agbani Darego Foundation, which focuses on empowering girls in Nigeria through scholarships, mentorship, and skills training.
7. Ajuma Nasenyana
Kenyan model, Ajuma Nasenyana, has left an indelible mark on the fashion industry and society despite a difficult upbringing. After completing high school and pursuing a degree in tourism at Kenya Utalii College, she was discovered by a modeling agency in Nairobi, thanks to her remarkable features and height, which led to her rapid success as a model. Despite facing several obstacles such as racism and discrimination for her dark skin, kinky hair, and curvy body, Nasenyana remained steadfast in her resolve, winning the Miss Tourism Kenya title in 2003 and collaborating with top designers and brands such as Vivienne Westwood, Yves Saint Laurent, and Victoria's Secret.
She has been an outspoken critic of the prevailing trend in her homeland of Kenya to reject the natural beauty standards of Black African communities in favor of those of other cultures. Her goal is to inspire women to love and embrace their natural appearance, and she intends to launch a line of natural skincare and cosmetic products for women like herself.
8. Halima Aden
Blending her Somali heritage with contemporary American fashion, Halima Aden gained attention in the fashion industry for her unique style. Her wearing of a hijab and burkini during the Miss Minnesota USA pageant sparked a conversation about inclusivity in the industry. She has since been signed by IMG Models and has appeared on the covers of major magazines and walked in runway shows for high-profile designers.
Her commitment to her religious and cultural beliefs is one of her defining characteristics, and she has refused to compromise her values for modeling jobs. The 25-year-old advocates for Muslim representation and inclusivity in the industry, and uses her platform to amplify the voices of other Muslim women.
9. Khoudia Diop
Known as the "Melanin Goddess," Khoudia Diop has become an emblematic figure in the African fashion arena. Growing up in Senegal, Diop grappled with her self-image, given the societal emphasis on light skin as the epitome of beauty. However, her life changed course when she moved to Paris at the age of 15, where she was discovered by a modeling agency. Despite facing discrimination and rejection based on her dark complexion, Diop persevered and eventually learned to embrace her distinct attributes.In 2016, a post on Instagram featuring Khoudia went viral, propelling her to widespread fame and inspiring countless individuals to embrace their cultural heritage and cultivate self-love. Since then, the 26-year-old has become a highly sought-after model for major brands, featuring in prestigious publications such as Vogue and Elle. She’s also used her influential platform to advocate for self-love and body positivity, with a particular focus on people of color.
10. Oluchi Onweagba
In 1998, Oluchi Onweagba became the first African model to win the highly coveted Face of Africa modeling competition, which propelled her career and opened doors for other African models in the global fashion arena. Her stunning appearance has graced the covers of numerous publications, including Elle, Vogue, and Sports Illustrated, and she has strut the runway for major fashion brands like Victoria's Secret, Christian Dior, and Chanel.
Onweagba's influence on the fashion industry and her dedication to leveraging her platform for social good have solidified her status as an iconic figure.
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